Israel's Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz (6th R) salutes as he stands near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (4th R) during the annual Memorial Day ceremony commemorating fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem May 9, 2011. Israel on Monday marks Memorial Day to commemorate its fallen soldiers. UPI/Baz Ratner/Pool | License Photo
TEL AVIV, Israel, April 26 (UPI) -- Israel's military chief of staff publicly challenged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's strident urging for pre-emptive strikes against Iran, a move likely to sharpen the confrontation between Israel's hawks and cooler heads in the military.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz asserted in an interview published in the liberal Haaretz daily Wednesday that he doesn't believe Iran will opt to develop nuclear weapons because Israel is too strong and the Tehran leadership is "composed of very rational people."
His comments, in which he all but calls on Netanyahu to calm down, add immense weight to a campaign by former military and intelligence chiefs who, breaking traditional practice, openly oppose the military option espoused by the political leadership.
They argue that Israeli strikes will trigger a potentially calamitous -- particularly for Israel -- regional war and that the Jewish state doesn't have the firepower to deliver a knockout blow on its own against Iran's widely dispersed, heavily protected nuclear infrastructure.
"The state of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so," Gantz said, confirming that Israel is preparing for the worst-case scenario.
But he stressed, "Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria."
His comments were in stark contrast to a string of alarmist, gung-ho speeches in recent days by the country's political leaders, most notably Netanyahu.
The prime minister called for military action against Iran amid celebrations leading up to Israel's Independence Day May 14 and invoked the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust if Israel doesn't move against Iran soon.
But Gantz may have his eye on a different date: May 23.
That's when talks between Iran and its Western adversaries led by the United States are to resume regarding a diplomatic compromise to defuse the military confrontation under way in the Persian Gulf.
That process began in Istanbul earlier this month, although Netanyahu and his cohorts have been angered by the talks, which they say will achieve nothing.
Netanyahu has long argued that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state and that the Tehran leadership is ideologically inclined to attack Israel. He and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and prime minister, lead those who favor hitting Iran in a bid to at least delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons capability.
The United States opposes unilateral Israeli military action because the Obama administration fears America will inevitably be dragged into the war an Israeli attack will trigger.
Indeed, Gantz's comments echoed the thoughts his American counterpart, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed three months ago when he visited Israel to urge restraint.
He, too, described the Iranian leadership as "rational," not the fanatical fundamentalists bent on Israel's destruction that Netanyahu talks of.
Gantz's intention may well be to signal Tehran that there are those in the Israeli elite who are more circumspect about going to war and favor moving diplomatic negotiations forward.
"In a way, that process … is a means for the United States and its partners to find enough common ground with Iran to forestall an Israeli attack," noted analyst Julian Borger in Britain's Guardian daily.
Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli-Iranian analyst, observed that Gantz's stand "is a welcome development, the main reason being that it takes the hysterics out of Israel's public assessment of the Iranian nuclear program.
"No one in Israel wants a nuclear armed Iran. The problem is that Netanyahu's exaggerated view about the Iranian nuclear program, and the holocaust which it would bring, discredit many of Israel's legitimate concerns with regards to Iran."
Gantz may have put his career on the line by opposing Netanyahu in such a public manner on such an explosive issue but the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor proffers a more Byzantine scenario.
"If Gantz is still in office next week, the political leadership must have cleared his interview," it said Thursday.
"In that case, Israel's position is that it will attack Iran if it builds a weapon but there is no need to attack now because Iran isn't irrational enough to try it.
"The threat to Iran is still there, the United States is placated and actual Israeli thinking remains a secret."